It’s been a while since I did a book review, I know. It’s just been busy, busy, busy around the Hunter household. I’ve been reading, of course—’cause books make my soul happy—but between parenting, working, and writing, reviews always seem to get rudely shoved to the backburner. But finally I’ve managed to get one done; I finished City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett a few days ago and I couldn’t wait to tell folks.
City of Stairs (from the back cover): Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.
The MC: The primary MC is Shara, a fiercely nationalistic, covert government operative, with a dash of royal blood and a passion for history—specifically, the forbidden history of slain gods who once ruled humanity. The very same gods her great-grandfather slew after a bloody rebellion. I really enjoyed spending time with this character, she’s jaded and world weary—often cynical and pessimistic—yet she’s also smart and capable, with an enduring streak of curiosity. She’s not physically intimidating or dangerous, but her mind is razor-sharp and she is as persistent as a door-to-door salesmen. Plus, she doesn’t need to be physically powerful because she has Sigrud.
Sigrud is the other MC, though he only has a few chapters from his point of view. Still, he’s awesome. An emotionally broken, physically domineering barbarian with an unflappable personality and a penchant for killing. He stoically battles his enemies, both mortal and divine, surviving despite the odds stacked against him.
The World: The world building was phenomenal. It’s second world fantasy (taking place in a land which most definitely isn’t earth, nor is it contemporary), but it’s not your typical medieval, European setting either. The time period, though not specified, seems to fall into the early industrial revolution era, but neither is it steampunk. Likewise the setting, seems to invoke post-Soviet Russia while also drawing from Indian (not Native American, but actually Indian) influences. The book takes place in a devastated city called Bulikov, which was once the seat of six divinities who ruled over a continent, which they shaped to their will. Amazingly done.
The Story and Writing: The writing is at times sparse and straightforward, but also quite beautiful, atmospheric, and immersive. As a word of caution, the story is told in third person present tense—typically I hate present tense, though I know that’s just preference—but it’s done exceptionally well in this novel. The pacing is much slower than what I usually read, not scores of action or detailed firefights, but the plot was intriguing enough to grab my attention and hold it tight. There’s mystery, intrigue, political cover-ups, and a supernatural mystery to unravel. Overall a wonderful and original work.
Just as a note for those from strong Christian backgrounds (as I myself am), there is some philosophical pondering on the nature of the divine, which is intriguing, though, vastly different from my own worldview and a little heavy handed at times. There are also some thoughts on the nature of sexuality—particularly concerning divine mandates—which might make a few readers uncomfortable. Still, an excellent read.
The Rating: Five Stars, for sure. A bit strange, but definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Buy it here: City of Stairs (The Divine Cities 1)